“You Are Gifted” Is Not a Compliment

Derek Sivers is someone you likely have not heard of. You should find out about him. He started and built and gave away a successful business. His self statement “I make useful things, and share what I learn,” There is some good material here. Derek’s blog

One blog article outlines his time line to becoming a singer. There is a poignant point that all of us can take to heart. He spent 15 years practicing two hours a day to go from poor to good as a singer. He then heard “Singing is a gift. You’re either born with or you’re not. You’re lucky. You were born with it!”

I don’t suppose he thought that remark was a compliment, although he may have smiled and said “Thank you.”

Competence and giftedness are not necessarily linked.

When you tell someone who is competent, that they are gifted, you may mean it as a compliment, but it is demeaning. No matter how competent, in the end, giftedness is just nuance. You have to do the work to be good and people who treat your skill as a gift, undervalue it and/or are making themselves feel better at your expense. They don’t have the “gift” so that explains why it should be cheap, or why they are not as good as you. That discounts to zero the work that made you good.

Without the work, no one would ever know about “your gift” because it would be invisible. Everyone who appears gifted has put in the time and effort to learn, in depth, the thing that interests them.

No one is good at anything the first time they try it, but some may be better than others. Perhaps that is a gift. They have a hint that the work may be worth their effort.

I recall a friend in high school who was a very good athlete. I had been playing golf for a while and thought he would enjoy it. An hour of coaching and he was hitting the ball pretty well. Over that summer, he spent about 15 hours a day at the golf course, most of it practicing. In 11 weeks he had a single digit handicap.

Gifted? Maybe. If he had not had some early success, he might not have worked at it. The 70 hours or so of practice each week likely mattered more. I would be willing to bet that high handicap golfers don’t have 800 hours of practice in their lifetime, never mind in 11 weeks. Does that mean they are not gifted? No. It means that they haven’t worked hard enough. That’s okay. They have other interests.

It is rumored that Tiger Woods and VJ Singh both hit more than 1,000 balls a day in practice. I doubt the other pros are far behind. I will bet that if you hit 350,000 practice shots a year, you will get better. Maybe not Tiger or VJ good, but good enough for your club mates to tell you that you are gifted.

And how would that feel?

Do a favour for your children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews and everyone else you know. Never tell them they are gifted.

Admire how hard they work or practice, how they learned from mistakes, how they kept at it, how they use what they know creatively, or how excited they are about what they do.

They will appreciate that and they will come to value your input. And if you pay attention, you might be able to see how you could do what they can do, even without the “gift.”

Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international accounting firm and is presently with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario. don.s@protectorsgroup.com

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